Safety drills: Several area school districts fail WJHL’s review

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – As many as a third of all school children in Northeast Tennessee face safety risks because their schools failed to conduct simple, timely safety procedures. Our review of 1,000 pages of fire, intruder, and emergency drill logs from more than a dozen school districts prompted most of those districts to take action.

Tennessee law requires a fire drill within the first 30 days of school and at least once a month after during the academic year, according to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. In addition, state law requires three other safety drills throughout the year, according to TDCI. Some district policies also require intruder drills within the first 30 days of school.

“You think, ‘Wow, that’s a lot,’ but you need that repetition,” Kingsport Fire Department Public Education Officer Barry Brickey said about the required number of fire drills. “You can be in one classroom one day, in the cafeteria the next and maybe the gym the next time and you need to know how to get out safely.”

Our review of safety drill logs identified at least 30 schools breaking state law and another dozen violating district policy.

Kingsport City Schools

We found a mix of both in Kingsport. Our review identified failures at nearly all of the district’s schools.

“This is obviously an area where we’ve all found that there are ways that we can improve,” Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent Andy True said.

Some Kingsport schools either never held an intruder drill or got around to it too late, according to public records.

“We saw a consistent issue with the intruder drill in the first 30 days,” True said.

Some schools missed occasional monthly fire drills too or didn’t hold enough other drills throughout the school year, our analysis revealed.

“We always are striving for 100% compliance, whether it’s with the law or a policy and when it doesn’t happen, we want to take the opportunity to learn from it and figure out why it didn’t happen and analyze it,” True said. “We’ve already put some additional policies and procedures in place.”

Carter County Schools

Kingsport is not the only district that is changing because of our findings.

“We had some concerns as well,” Carter County Director of Schools Dr. Kevin Ward said.

According to drill logs, Little Milligan Elementary School only held four out of 10 fire drills all of last school year. After we pointed that out to the central office, Dr. Ward says he visited the school in-person and required the school to run through all of its drills.

“It was a very routine and organized event,” Dr. Ward said. “They didn’t have time to plan or prepare otherwise. I’m confident they have done them.”

That visit reassured the school district’s top administrator, but he admits he can’t be 100% sure the school previously followed the law.

“I haven’t been up there every month to check and see,” Dr. Ward said.

Little Milligan’s principal of 16 years, who also attended the school as a child, acknowledged the lack of documentation.

“I realize I only sent in documentation for safety drills that were practiced together,” JR Campbell said. “We usually do all emergency drills at the same time. Some of our individual fire drills were not on that particular documentation. I am confident that our faculty, staff, and students know what to do in case an emergency situation occurs. Because of our rural location, and the occurrences on behalf of Mother Nature, in my tenure here, hardly a day goes by that I don’t walk the school grounds hoping that the drill is not practiced this time.”

Like Kingsport, Dr. Ward says Carter County needs to do a better job of documenting its drills when they do occur, remembering to complete all of the required drills that some schools likely missed in the past and planning ahead, so bad weather and snow days don’t prevent schools from meeting the requirements.

“I do know we have a documentation problem,” he said. “There [have] probably been some drills that may have been forgotten. You’ve got to have some kind of flagging system in place.”

Dr. Ward says his district has created a new procedure, which will likely become board policy that requires all drills to take place within the first two weeks of the month, so administrators can stay on top of any schools that haven’t complied before it becomes a problem.

“There should be no more failures,” Dr. Ward said.

Johnson City Schools

Our investigation found failures in almost every district in Northeast Tennessee. Some were as simple as schools just missing one drill here and there, while others involved repeat issues.

At Johnson City’s Lake Ridge Elementary School, administrators missed two of the first four fire drills for this school year, records revealed.

“[Lake Ridge Principal John Phillips] stated that he failed to hold fire drills in September and October,” Johnson City Schools Director of Instruction and Communications Dr. Debra Bentley said. “There is no explanation for this oversight.”

After we pointed out the missed drills, Dr. Bentley says the district sent out a reminder to all of its principals.

Several other school districts took similar action and every district we contacted pledged to do a better job moving forward.

Johnson County Schools

In Johnson County, district records identified several schools that failed to follow state law and board policy. For example, in addition to two missed monthly fire drills during the 2015-2016 school year, Roan Creek Elementary School held its intruder drill late in both that school year and the 2016-2017 school year, according to district records. Records revealed Laurel Elementary School held a late intruder drill during the 2015-2016 school year and missed a fire drill that year too. In addition, Johnson County Middle School held a late intruder drill this school year and missed a monthly fire drill the previous school year, district documents revealed.

“We realize that we have some improvements to make,” Johnson County Director of Schools. Dr. Mischelle Simcox said. “We continually monitor the safety of our students and staff. We do have the required Fire Marshall visits yearly and any issues that occur are rectified immediately.”

Unicoi County Schools

Our review of drill records found problems at two Unicoi County school too. Temple Hill Elementary School missed three monthly fire drills during the 2015-2016 school year, according to records.

“In speaking with those principals they say it was a record keeping error regarding the dates not documented and they have satisfied the monthly requirements, but certainly this has given us an opportunity to reiterate and have the needed conversation about documenting and keeping accurate records, as well as making sure we fulfill the requirements,” Unicoi County Director of Schools John English said of our findings. “I am guessing in at least some of those instances a drill wasn’t executed and in some cases maybe (administrators) simply didn’t document it.”

Rogersville City Schools

At Rogersville City Schools, records show the school missed five fire drills during the 2015-2016 school year.

“Yes, we were aware of some deficiencies last year and quickly moved to resolve them despite inclement weather, illness, and testing debacles,” Assistant Principal Shane Bailey said. “Specifically, a drill schedule with dates and times was generated following an administrative meeting on July 26, 2016.”

Back in Kingsport, every school now uses the same drill documentation form, principals know exactly what’s expected of them and there’s more oversight at the district level, True said. The hope is no school will ever need to rely on its training, but he says if that day comes, all children should now be more prepared than they were before.

“It’s been a good learning experience for us,” he said. “This is obviously an important issue when it comes to safety.”


News Channel 11 put together a map that shows how your child’s school measured up to our review. See the interactive below for details. If you are reading this on a mobile device, click here to see the map. 

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